A Curious Professor

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Part I: Holberg

In all the years of our long friendship, there was never a week that went by when Dale Brown and I did not talk about teaching. We talked about our own classes, of course, and our students, but we also talked about all the pedagogical “nitty-gritty” – grading and assignments and course readings – trying to figure out how to get ever better at what we felt was the most meaningful part of our job as professors. We were constantly exchanging, as well, articles and observations about the state of higher education more generally, frequently lamenting the impulses in our profession away from the liberal arts and away from a commitment to undergraduate learning. These conversations were a profound gift to me – and in the months since his death, I have felt keenly the silencing of his wisdom and the loss of his example. Dale was not just a supremely accomplished teacher himself – receiving accolades such the 2003 Professor of the Year award at Calvin College – but he inspired those of us he worked with at Calvin and King University to be better teachers, too.

Teaching well mattered deeply to Dale – and to watch him teach (as I was privileged to do when we co-taught several courses together) was to watch a master class in every session. Laura Hicks Hardy’s second part of this essay testifies to Dale’s incredible impact upon his students; in this companion piece, I want to celebrate, from the point of view of a fellow teacher, at least a few of the characteristics (knowing full well that Dale would resist any notion of rubric or measurability) that made his teaching so remarkable.

A serious craftsman

Like all gifted artists and craftspeople (because, after all, good teaching necessitates both), Dale made being in the classroom look extraordinarily easy: the great erudition worn lightly; the winsome presentation of the material; the kind encouragement readily given to students, inside and outside the class. He was adept in every classroom mode: listening to Dale lecture was like listening to the very best story, and yet he also engaged students in compelling classroom discussions. He had whole pages of texts memorized (including, oftentimes, the page numbers), and there seemed to be few books he hadn’t read.

In a profession that can sometimes tend toward pomposity and pedantry, Dale provided the necessary opposite.

But, of course, it wasn’t easy at all. Or not easy in the sense that it came without effort, despite his immense talent for it. It was built on hours of impressively thorough preparation – a visit to his office revealed not just hundreds of books, but hundreds of files of supporting materials, developed throughout the years for his classes. And students were right: there were few things he hadn’t read because he did read – all the time. But it wasn’t preparation for preparation’s sake; instead, Dale prepared because he believed the classroom was a place of awesome responsibility and holy work. Writing in Perspectives, he spoke of the necessary anxiety that came before the beginning of each new school year:

“In one dream, I find the room and arrive on time, but the seats remain empty. In another I search pantingly for the room as the clock ticks relentlessly past the starting time. Still another has me arriving on time with the students all in place, but I have forgotten some important item of clothing. Sometimes the students hiss and jeer and fail to laugh at my jokes. I wake up early. The semester approaches. These are teacher dreams, familiar as regret, reappearing every August as a new term looms.

“The trepidation is part of the job. Anxiety seems appropriate when you are tinkering with the lives of young adults, college students. Every new semester I walk down the hall toward them muttering a prayer for wisdom and faith and imagination. Using texts of enormous power for good and ill, I’ll try to point them toward insights that might change their lives. Enough to make you toss and turn at night.” (“The Beejabers,” January 2003)

Always curious

Dale took the classroom seriously, too, because, at heart, he himself never stopped being curious. In the commencement address he gave at King in 2005, Dale told the story of Gipsy Smith, a 19th-century evangelist: “His colorfulness and originality are legendary. He started preaching in the 1870s at age 17 and died on a preaching trip to the United States when he was 87 – on the first postwar trip of the Queen Mary. He was a simple man. … But what interests me most about Gipsy Smith is an anecdote from late in his life. Asked by a reporter about the secret of his freshness and vigor at such an advanced age, how he’d managed to find the energy to preach almost every day for more than 50 years, he answered, ‘I have never lost the wonder.’”

He read the entire Harry Potter series – because his students asked him to.

The same could be said of Dale – who never “lost the wonder,” either. By his example, he taught students (and his colleagues, too) to revel in the complexities of literature, to revel in the complexities of life. At a time in his career when he could have rested easily in what he had already learned, he remained open to possibility and to seeking after scenes of mystery.  Significantly, he remained open to students and their interests as well (not always the mark of senior professors): last summer, for example, he read the entire Harry Potter series – because his students asked him to. He graciously modeled reading with charity and hermeneutics with humility. In a profession that can sometimes tend toward pomposity and pedantry, Dale provided the necessary opposite.

high stakes in the classroom

Ultimately, the classroom mattered to Dale because literature (and, by extension, the entire project of liberal arts education) mattered. Yet not literature qua literature, but literature as epistemology. Dale sought out “stories that preach,” stories that provide a radically capacious way of guiding us toward becoming more faithful people. Speaking to a group of faculty, he argued: “In the whirlwind of change, we need solid ground, a core. I have a suspicion that all of us, faculty and students, want to learn how to live, find words for our confusions, enlarge our faith and discover what Christ calls ‘fullness of life.’ … We want our students to be a blessing to the world, and I believe that involves more than literacy and a command of the facts. Here’s what I hope we are up to in our little corner of the core: Together with our students, we aim to engage great wisdoms which, when combined with faith, reason and imagination, might lead us to sort through the noise and distraction of our time with spiritual discernment.”

The stakes, then, could not be higher for us who are called to the classroom. If teaching is to make any difference, that difference, according to Dale, comes only when we focus together on the difficult task – difficult particularly in an age of distraction – of paying attention to the essentials that sustain and renew us. For Dale, talking about the stories that shape our lives was critical to understanding those essentials. Few things deserved more time in the classroom than that.

powerful stuff

At the conclusion of each course, Dale always ended with a poem. Often it was one of his favorites, Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer.” As the poem begins, a father hears his young daughter typing a story in her bedroom and stops to listen. Rather than dismiss her because of her age, he instead empathetically appreciates that “Young as she is, the stuff / Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy: / I wish her a lucky passage.” As he continues to listen, he thinks back to a scene two years before when a starling had become trapped in his daughter’s bedroom. Though he and his daughter “lifted a sash / And retreated, not to affright it,” it takes the starling, “sleek, wild, dark / and iridescent,” a “helpless hour” to finally escape – and only after myriad agonizingly unsuccessful tries. But the delight is keen when the bird finally gets free:

… and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

The bird’s escape reminds the father of how fraught the world is, how much his writing daughter faces – and he again blesses her, but this time with a greater fervor:

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

For me, the poem beautifully encapsulates so much of what I admire about Dale’s aim in the classroom. Like the father, Dale listened carefully to his students and what they were trying to express. He took them seriously, never laughing at them or dismissing their ideas or their concerns because of their age – he understood that they felt things intensely. Even when they were discovering insights that were new only to them, he was patient and gentle in guiding them. He knew that, like the bird, students might need multiple tries to fly successfully – and that the effort might be a painful one for them. Yet he also believed in the innate “iridescent” beauty of each student – and the joy in watching each take flight. What he was teaching them was powerful stuff – “life or death,” indeed – no easy answers. But there was never any mistake that Dale’s fervent good wishes always compassed them round. It’s no wonder he was so beloved as a teacher. Or such an inspiration for us all.

Part II: Hicks Hardy

As I remember Dale Brown, I remember words. A couple of months after his first visit to King, Dale  Brown gave me a signed copy of Frederick Buechner’s The Alphabet of Grace, and I was hooked, not just by the words but by this generous act toward a student he barely knew. The evening after I received the news of his death, when I was at such a loss for any words of my own, I kept hearing Dale’s voice in my head, reciting the words he loved and returned to in his classrooms and lectures.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
(Robert Frost)
“Consider the lilies of the field is the only commandment I have never broken.”
(Emily Dickinson)
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

These words and others will always remind me of Dale. But that evening, I also thought of the good words I so often heard from fellow students. So I have gathered a few of these words to share with you.
One student remembers Dale, near the end of a course, bringing a number of his own books to class and giving them to the students. “As a lover of books and literature,” the student said, “this act still astounds me by the magnitude of its generosity.”

Other students recall what it was like to be in a class with Dale with these words: “No one was without worth in his class, and he sought to draw from each of us more than we thought we had.” “Literature suddenly became to me not only stories that were about characters far off, but rather stories about me”; after class, “the grass seemed crisper, the sky bluer. … I realized that not being present in my own life would be an unforgivable mistake.” “He encouraged us to practice … persistence in our search for meaning and truth and love.” “He taught me about the wonderment and beauty found in pain, the power of life over death, and the ability within each of us to fully embrace our brokenness and humanness, to celebrate it even.” “We laughed every day.”

Students also remember Dale outside of the classroom with these words: “He taught us by example through the way he lived his life.” “Above all else, DB was adamant that we do good in this world.” “Dr. Brown was my friend. He welcomed me. Laughed with me. Hugged me. Prayed with me. Honored me. Humbled me. Called me to be more like Christ.”

Someone on whom nothing is lost

To reference another one of Dale’s favorite phrases: he was, and encouraged his students to be, “someone on whom nothing is lost” – be it a good joke, a bad paper, an important conversation or a perfect afternoon at the Holston Dam – all of these were the voice of God, telling us something (except maybe the bad paper). In this, he taught us not just to hear, but to listen. Not just to look, but to see. Not just to see, but to wonder. In mining a poem or short story for meaning, he taught us to mine our lives for meaning as well. In paying attention to and asking questions of a word, phrase or character, Dale taught us to pay attention to and ask questions of our own lives – and ultimately, the life of the world.

In paying attention to and asking questions of a word, phrase or character, Dale taught us to pay attention to and ask questions of our own lives.

As a teacher, Dale stubbornly insisted that his students wrestle with the difficult questions, the life-and-death questions, the questions that might help prepare us for moments like his death. But lest we take these questions and ourselves a little too seriously, Dale was always ready with an unexpected (or untimely) joke, an awkward though immensely encouraging slap on the shoulder, a goofy nickname. Behind every serious question, a slightly raised eyebrow, as if to say, “This world isn’t the last word. Don’t get too serious.”

As we face his life and death, we also face the difficult questions. Dale was never fond of easy answers, so I think he would want us to ask the hard questions and keep asking them. But I hope that as we do, we also hear his voice behind them, low, like he knows some great secret – “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found”; “Earth’s crammed with heaven” – just as I am sure we will see Dale poking out from behind these words any time we encounter them. So, even in death, Dale comforts us, because he has taught us, through the words of Buechner, that we carry the ones we love with us – “you carry them … in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”

He taught us that a world lives in us. And even when we struggle to find him, he is there, a part of that world – in Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Godric; between the lines of Buechner, Twain, Dickinson; in our own memories of him, as himself, our teacher and friend.


Jennifer L. Holberg teaches English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the chair of the National Advisory Board of the Buechner Institute, Bristol, Tennessee. Laura Hicks Hardy teaches English and composition at King University, also in Bristol.